Excerpt from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Banquet at Delmonico's

Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

By Barry Werth

Banquet at Delmonico's
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2009,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2011,
    400 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Micah Gell-Redman

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Print Excerpt

Perhaps because he sensed that while he might continue to oppose Darwinism, he no longer could avoid the fact that it seemed to be on the verge of prevailing among biologists - even his son, Alexander, had by and large converted - Agassiz had gone out of his way to mend fences. In the summer of 1864, disturbed and hurt by Gray’s public challenges, he had insulted Gray "so foolishly and grossly," as Gray put it, that Gray broke off all personal relations with him. Agassiz apologized two years later, and ever since, the two had shown each other cordial respect. In fact, evolutionary purists like Spencer, Youmans, and Huxley, and "accommodationists" like Gray and Beecher, all welcomed Agassiz’s determination to study the world’s nether regions afresh in light of Darwin’s work, and they wished him unflagging health and success. "Pray give my most sincere respects to your father," Darwin wrote in June to Alexander, a recent member of his ever-widening circle of correspondents. "What a wonderful man he is to think of going through the Strait of Magellan."

The Hassler steamed out of Charlestown harbor and into Cape Cod Bay on a gray afternoon on December 4, just before a snowstorm, the first of the season. The hopes Agassiz had formed of this expedition were "as high as those of any young explorer," his wife, Elizabeth, who sailed with him, wrote. For reading, he took along only Darwin’s books. A year after despairing that he would never have the chance to finish all that he had started, he looked ahead with gusto to warmer seas. He couldn’t wait to get started. "As soon as we reached the Gulf Stream," he reported to Peirce in his next letter, "we began work."

"I am back from Germany more dead than alive," Youmans wrote to his sister, Catherine, from London during the first week of December, "but still a good deal vital." Visiting the Continent - reeling from war, radicalism, and bloodshed - had been "a strange experience" in part due to Spencer, who joined him in Paris ostensibly to help open doors for what Youmans now called his "international scheme," but whose sensitivity to criticism, Darwin-envy, and dependence on his American friend flashed over during the visit.

Huxley, Darwin’s famously combative defender and chief popularizer in England, had challenged Spencer in an article championing a free public school system, which Spencer deplored as useless and destructive. Largely self-taught, Huxley was among England’s foremost biologists, having paved the way for The Descent of Man - drawing the poison, so to speak - by publishing his own book on human evolution, Evidence on Man’s Place in Nature, in 1863. Darwinism and radical social theory had become inextricable, yet international events had recently heightened antagonism over the role of government, and Huxley and Spencer, while scientific allies, clashed over how best to improve society. A year earlier, German forces led by Prussia had conquered and humiliated France, where starving Parisians, besieged and bombarded, were reduced to eating dogs, cats, and rats, even the elephants in the zoo. For two months in the spring, socialists and communards ruled the French capital until the uprising was crushed, but not before unleashing the specter of mob rule. A charged political climate in London - the Times, in a scathing editorial, attacked the timing of Darwin’s release of Descent during the Paris Commune as "reckless" - now polarized and inflamed every debate.

Huxley, in addition to writing, teaching, editing, and providing for a household of ten children, was a furious social crusader. He took on too much always, unable to resist new battles. He agreed during the fall to serve with Spencer and Tyndall as English jury for Youmans’s project; pledged to write the first book in the series, on bodily motion and consciousness; and took on duties on two royal commissions and the London School Board. In his article on free schools in The Fortnightly Review, he called Spencer to task for his views on the proper role of government: that is, as Huxley wrote, "The State is simply a policeman, and its duty is neither more nor less than to prevent robbery and murder and enforce contracts."

Excerpted from Banquet at Delmonico's by Barry Werth. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Werth. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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